Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy


Genius and Fate

The genius reveals fate everywhere, all the more profoundly as he is more profound... The existence of such genius is, in spite of its brilliance, its beauty, and its great historical significance, a sin. It takes courage to understand this.


     The fear of Nothingness is thus made plain to us, not as a condition inherent in Innocence and Ignorance, but as a condition inherent in sin and knowledge. There was no need to amend Holy Scripture. It is true that in the case at hand the entire responsibility for this cannot be ascribed to Kierkegaard. The story of the Fall has always been a veritable crux interpretuum, and even the faithful have thought it their right, indeed their obligation, to add their own corrections to it. The unknown author of the famous Theologia deutsch, whom Luther enthusiastically praised as one of the most remarkable mystics of the Middle Ages, flatly states that sin did not come into the world from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam, he declares, could have eaten even ten apples—and no harm would have come of it. Adam's only sin was his insubordination, his disobedience to God. Kierkegaard always disassociated himself from mystics and obviously did not trust them. He reproaches them for their impetuosity and even for their obtrusiveness. What he says about them might be more succinctly expressed in the words of Holy Scripture: they already have their reward. The more gifted, the more fiery, the more daring a mystic is, the more one feels, both in his writings and in his life, that he has already received his full reward and there is nothing more to be expected from any quarter.

     This is no doubt why modern life, weary of positivism and disillusioned by it, but possessed of neither the strength nor the desire to go beyond the boundaries it has established, has made such a fierce attack upon the work of the mystics. The religion of mystics, even though it is a lofty one, or more probably precisely because it is lofty, is nevertheless a religion within the limits of reason. The mystic becomes united with God, the mystic himself becomes God; in mysticism God has just as much need of man as man has of God. Even Hegel, bona fide and with every right to do so, adopted the famous line by Angelus Silesius, and for this he did not have to go to Job or Abraham, or call upon Faith or the Absurd. Mysticism exists in peace and concord with human reason and human perception, and the reward which it promises men does not presuppose, but excludes, any supernatural intervention; everything proceeds naturally, everything is achieved by one's own powers. In my opinion, this too repels Kierkegaard from mysticism; if we say "by one's own powers," it means that there is no repetition, it means that Job does not regain his riches and his children, that Abraham loses his Isaac forever, it means that the youth who fell in love with the king's daughter will have to be content with the brewer's widow, it means that Kierkegaard is never again to see Regina Olsen. The God of the Bible, Who listens to the wails and curses of Job, Who turns Abraham's hand from his son, Who bothers about the youth hopelessly in love, the God Who, in Kierkegaard's words, numbers the hairs on a man's head, is for the mystics not the real God. As cultivated persons (Hegel, again, or Renan) have said, it is impossible to worship this God in truth. Such a God can exist only in the crude and naïve notions of ignorant people—shepherds, carpenters, and fishermen—almost barbarians or half-barbarian. Even the works of the mystics, to the degree that they still retain traces of these outdated and ridiculous notions, must here and there be subordinated and adapted to the level of our concept of the world.

     But Kierkegaard avoids enlightened mysticism. He is irresistibly drawn to the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob—and away from the God of the philosophers, who imagine that they are worshipping in spirit and in truth. But he has told us that it was not given him to make the movement of faith, and this is true. In his journal, in regard to Luther, we read: "It is well enough known that certain states of mind seek refuge in what is Opposite to them. A man bolsters himself with forceful Words and the more he vacillates, the more forceful they become. This is not deceit, but devout endeavor. Man does not want to give expression to the uncertainty of his fear, does not even want to call it by its real name, and violently wrings from himself assertions to the contrary, in the hope that this will help." [Journal, I, 229] We are not about to touch upon the matter of how far these observations are correct with respect to Luther, but they are completely applicable to Kierkegaard. He approached the mystery of the Fall without having rid himself of the "uncertainty of fear" (is it indeed possible to get rid of fear; has anyone ever succeeded in driving it away?), and then he found it necessary to misinterpret, i.e., to amend and alter the Biblical story and even to invest the state of innocence with what he had found in his own experience, the experience of a sinful, fallen man. He achieved a "logical explanation" which he had so stubbornly resisted.

     And, in fact, if fear is already inherent in innocence, then sin becomes inescapable and unthinking; it is therefore explicable and "not irritating" to reason, as Kant said, but satisfactory to it. Even if the result is not the "self-movement of the concept," as Hegel wished, then it is, in any case, "self-movement," and even for Hegel it is not the second, but the first part of the formula that is essential. It is important that there be self-movement, that a thing move by itself, but the thing that moves is of secondary importance; the end has come for hateful unexpectedness, for "suddenly," for fiat, and for the free will behind them, even though it be God's. Man's sin is not that he tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, not that he began to distinguish good from evil. Adam could have eaten even twenty apples; he would have lost nothing by this, but would have gained by it. It is also not true that the serpent tempted the first man—there is surely no need to bring the serpent into the story of the Fall. Our reason knows all this definitely and positively, and there is no resort to a higher authority than the knowledge of reason, nor can there be... The Absurd once more retreats before self-evidences which it has not the power to overcome.

     But the fear of Nothingness has remained, and Kierkegaard cannot and does not want to forget about it. However, in order to retain at least the semblance of consistency, he performs a metabasis eis allo genos which is almost completely imperceptible to the inexperienced eye. He began with pointless and causeless fear; next he substitutes for the word "fear" the quite similar word "terror," and then, as if it were perfectly natural, he proceeds to the real horror of life, from which his mind can never free itself. But in fact, fear of Nothingness, by which sin is maintained, has nothing in common with the terror experienced by children as they listen to tales of perilous adventure and the like. Kierkegaard himself observed correctly that inherent in terror there is a moment of "sweetness" which always accompanies our fancies of the mysterious, the extraordinary, and the marvelous. The origin of fear of Nothingness is altogether different from the origin of terror; it is also impossible to demonstrate any direct link between fear of Nothingness and the horrors of which human life is full. That is precisely why this fear is pointless and causeless, and, in its pointlessness and causelessness, so incomprehensible to us. To approach it with the "laws" of inconsistency and of sufficient basis, with which Leibniz armed himself when he set out to seek the truth, means to do everything to ensure the impossibility of examining it. Only the serpent of the Bible (or, as a concession to our habits of thinking, only the intervention of some force external to man) can introduce us, in some degree at least, to that incandescent atmosphere in which the Fall took place, and at the same time reveal to us—so far as it can be or should be revealed to man—what the Fall actually is.

     And here Kierkegaard's experience, breaking through every prohibition, every veto imposed upon our minds by reason and morality, can render a priceless service. "Fear," he says, "may be compared with giddiness. A person who must look down into an abyss opening before him will feel that his head is spinning... And fear is the giddiness of freedom. It occurs when the mind, wishing to realize a synthesis, peers into its own possibility, but simultaneously grasps at the finite in order to retain it. This giddiness causes freedom to fall to the ground. Psychology can tell us nothing more. But in that moment everything is changed and when freedom gets up again, it sees that it is guilty. Between these two instants there is a leap that no science has ever explained or could explain. Fear is the swoon of freedom, like a woman's swoon. Psychologically speaking, the Fall always takes place in a swoon." [V, 56] These words, together with what Luther told us about human freedom in his De servo arbitrio, should be classed among the most profound and wonderfully penetrating achievements of the human mind. "Fear is the giddiness of freedom" and "the Fall always takes place in a swoon—says Kierkegaard to us. And at the same time, this fear is fear of Nothingness. "The Nothingness of fear thus seems to be a complex of premonitions which the individual considers more and more closely all the time, even though they have practically no meaning as far as the fear is concerned (that is, they offer it no sustenance, so to speak): nevertheless this is not the kind of Nothingness to which the individual has no relationship, but a Nothingness which has a vital mutual relationship with the ignorance of innocence."

     Kierkegaard is absorbed in examining, with intense concentration, the Nothingness revealed to him and the connection between Nothingness and fear. "If we ask what is the object of fear," he writes in another passage from the same book, "there will be but one answer: Nothingness. Fear and Nothingness are always found in company with one another. But as soon as the reality of freedom and the mind comes into its own, fear disappears. What exactly is Nothingness as the pagans feared it? It is fate... Fate is the union of Necessity and Chance. This has been expressed in the representation of destiny as blind; one who walks along blindly is moving forward just as much by necessity as by chance. A necessity which does not recognize itself as such is chance eo ipso, in regard to the next moment. Fate is the Nothingness of fear." [Ibid., 93, 94] The man of greatest genius—Kierkegaard goes on to explain—has no power to vanquish the idea of fate. On the contrary, "the genius reveals destiny everywhere, all the more profoundly as he is more profound. To a superficial observer this, of course, is nonsense; but in fact, there is greatness here, for man is not born with the idea of Providence... This is an exact statement of the innate strength of the genius—that he reveals destiny—but therein also lies his weakness." [Ibid., 96] And he concludes his observations with these provocative words: "The existence of such genius, in spite of its brilliance, its beauty, and its great historical significance, is a sin. It takes courage to understand this, and he who has not learned the art of satisfying the hunger of a yearning spirit will hardly be able to grasp it. And yet it is so." [Ibid., 99]

     Space does not permit me to cite further passages. Kierkegaard rings every possible change on the ideas set forth in the excerpts just quoted, culminating in his assertions that fear of Nothingness leads to the swoon of freedom; that the man who has lost his freedom is made powerless, and in his powerlessness takes Nothingness to be unconquerable Fate, omnipotent Necessity; that the more firmly he is convinced of this, the more penetrating his mind becomes, and the more mighty his talent. In spite of all his reservations, which have already been mentioned, Kierkegaard, as we shall see, makes a complete return to the Biblical narrative of the Fall of the first man. A genius, the greatest genius, before whom all bow and whom all consider mankind's benefactor, who can expect posterity's immortal praise just because he is a genius, because he, with his sharp-sighted, alert gaze, pierces the farthest depths of all that exists—is "also the greatest sinner, the sinner par excellence." Socrates, at the moment when he discovered "general and necessary truths" in the world, which even today are still the prerequisite of the possibility of objective knowledge, repeated anew the transgression of Adam—he stretched forth his hand to the forbidden tree—and therefore, in spite of all his immense historical significance, in spite of all his fame, he is a fallen man, a sinner. Perhaps, I might add, he may be that sinner over whom, as the eternal Book so exasperatingly says, there would be more rejoicing in heaven than over ten righteous men, but nevertheless he is a sinner. He tasted the fruit of knowledge—and empty Nothingness became for him Necessity which, like the head of Medusa, turns to stone all who gaze upon it. And he did not even suspect the significance of what he was doing, just as our forefather did not when he accepted from Eve's hand that fruit which was so alluring to the eye. In the words uttered by the tempter: eritis sicut dei scientes bonum et malum, there lies concealed the invincible power of Nothingness which paralyzes man's previously free will.

     Kierkegaard observes with some truth that as long as Adam was innocent he could not understand what was meant by God's words forbidding him to taste the fruit of the tree of good and evil, for he did not know what good and evil were. But is it necessary or even possible to "understand" them? We accept them, we know that good is good and evil is evil. But there is another possibility, related in Holy Scripture, which is hidden from us, and will probably always remain hidden from our "understanding." It is not that Adam "did not know" the difference between good and evil: there was no such difference. For God, and for Adam so long as he walked in the presence of God, evil did not exist: everything in creation was good. When the serpent promised man that, once having tasted of the tree of knowledge, he would become equal with God and know the difference between good and evil, he deceived him doubly. Man did not become equal with God, and God in general has no knowledge and in particular has no knowledge of good and evil, that knowledge which the fallen man, the man bewitched by the treacherous spells of Nothingness, thinks of, even today, as his highest attribute. Socrates, the wisest of men, an incomparable genius, Was the greatest of sinners—he was not the free Socrates he thought himself to be, but an enchained, enchanted Socrates, Socrates desmôtês.

     Fear of the Nothingness shown him by the tempter had paralyzed his will. Moreover, he did not even suspect that his will was paralyzed. He was certain that his will was free and that the reason directing that will was of the best; he believed that the promise: eritis sicut dei scientes bonum et malum had been realized in him and in every man, that he had become like God, and become like God because he "knew." Here we find the meaning of the words of the Apostle Paul quoted by Kierkegaard himself: all that is not of faith is sin. The knowledge for which our reason so eagerly strives is a most grievous, mortal sin. This is why Kierkegaard made such haste for the Absurd and warned against the claims of the ethical. Reason, with its eager striving (I shall repeat once more—concupiscentia invincibilis) for necessary truths, and goodness with its categorical demands, are what the fruit of the forbidden tree has brought to man. Man has been weakened by that fruit, and has lost the ability to perceive any misfortune in his weakness, has lost the desire to struggle against it. He has become a knight of resignation; he sees merit and virtue in this resignation, and identifies knowledge with truth. He has lost his freedom— but this does not dismay him; rather, he thinks it not unusual that there is no freedom and can be none, and that the world is upheld by coercion, expressed in the "laws" of existence, which he has identified with truth, and in the "laws" of obligation, which together make up his morality. He sees it as his duty to recognize the laws of existence and to carry out in his own life the laws of morality: facienti quod in se est deus non denegat gratiam (God will not refuse His blessing to the man who does what is within his power).

     However strange it may seem, one observes in the thinking of Kierkegaard, in spite of all his impulsiveness, a constant tendency toward the concept of sin adopted by theoretical philosophy. This is why he said that Adam in his innocence did not yet know the difference between good and evil. But if such is the case, we must again ask: what then is the relevance of Job with his wails, Abraham with his terrible sacrifice, and the Apostle Paul with his assertion that all that is not of faith is sin? And what has become of the paradox, what of the Absurd? For the Absurd is the Absurd for the very reason that it wishes to free itself from every sort of "law," that it cannot reconcile itself with "laws," but is in opposition to them. Kierkegaard himself tells us: "Faith begins where thinking comes to an end." [III, 50] Or, again, he says this: "Faith is a paradox by virtue of which the individual stands out above the general... or that the individual, as an individual, finds himself in an absolute relationship to the absolute." [Ibid., 53] And none of these ideas were uttered by him casually—faith is, for Kierkegaard, the conditio sine qua non of existential philosophy. But, if this is so, can we look for "laws" when we enter the realm where faith contends with sin? And is sin the breaking of laws? In other words, is sin guilt? It must be said once more that Kierkegaard displays a continual readiness to substitute the concept of guilt for the concept of sin. And, in fact, if we wish to understand how the pagan idea of sin differs from the Biblical idea of it, we must first of all say to ourselves that, while the pagans considered that the concept of guilt had completely put an end to and superseded the concept of sin, Holy Scripture saw these ideas, not even as opposed to one another, but simply as having nothing to do with each other.

     There is a famous Russian proverb: he who is not sinful in the eyes of God is not guilty in the eyes of the Tsar. In contrast to what Kierkegaard has written, the fact is, as we have seen, that for the pagans sin always presupposed evil will, and therefore katharsis, i.e., purification, constitutes, according to Plato, the essence of philosophy. "No one who has not studied philosophy and who is not entirely pure at the time of his departure is allowed to enter the company of the gods" (Phaedo, 82), says Socrates, expressing a thought which was most sacred to him. On the other hand, we read in the Republic (613, a): "God never abandons the man who tries to be just, who practices virtue,..." In keeping with this, the fifty-third chapter of the Book of Isaiah, which speaks of the one who has taken upon himself all our sins, a chapter which Christianity sees as a prophecy of the coming and the mission of Christ, could only seem highly deceitful to the pagans, a decisive challenge both to the pagan conscience and to pagan reason. To transfer one's sins to another is both impossible and extremely reprehensible. Equally challenging and deceitful to the pagans were those other words of Isaiah included by the Apostle Paul in his epistle (Romans 10:20) as an example of amazing audacity: Hêsaias de apotolmâi kai legei ("But Isaiah is very bold, and saith, I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me.")[Is.65:1] Human reason plainly and distinctly sees and admits as a self-evident truth that there is no possibility of transferring sin from oneself to another; and conscience, which always follows upon reason, declares definitely and categorically that it is immoral to pass on one s own sin (one's own guilt) to another. And here, more than anywhere else, it is appropriate to recall Kierkegaard's Absurd, or better yet, the original words of Tertullian which reached Kierkegaard in the abbreviated formulation credo quia absurdum. In Tertullian's De carne Christi we read: crucifixus est Dei filius: non pudet quia pudendum est; et mortuus est Dei filius: prorsus credibile quia ineptum est; et sepultus resurrexit, certum quia impossibile.

     Tertullian had learned from the Prophets and the Apostles that all the pudenda of our morality and all the impossibilia of our reason were suggested by a hostile power which has enchained man's will, and in this mysterious power he perceived, as Luther was later to do, the bellua qua non occisa homo non potest vivere. For God nothing is impossible, and nothing is shameful. Shame, which Alcibiades said Socrates had given him, was passed down to Socrates himself by the sinner Adam. Innocence knew no shame, according to the Scriptures, and shame was unnecessary for innocence. All this is paradox, all this is Absurd; but then, the prophecy of the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah can enter our consciousness only under cover of the Absurd and the Paradox. It is impossible to "understand" that a sinless one has taken sin upon himself. It is even less comprehensible that sin can thus be destroyed, uprooted from existence: for this means causing something which once had existence to become nonexistent. It is natural that the most profound and devout of men have tried with all their might to win reason and morality over to the side of the truth of revelation. We read in the writings of Bonaventura: non est pejoris conditionis veritas fidei nostrae quam aliae veritates; sed in aliis veritatibus ita est, ut omnis (veritas) qua potest per rationem impugnari, potest et debet per rationem defendi; ergo, pari ratione, et veritas fidei nostrae. ("The truth of our faith is in no worse position than other truths; all other truths can be proved by the same means which can be used to attack them, that is, by the arguments of reason; consequently, the truth of our faith is in exactly the same situation.")

     Bonaventura, like all other medieval philosophers, was firmly convinced that if the truth of faith cannot be defended by the same rational proofs which can serve to dispute it, this means that it is in a worse position than other truths. From what source did he draw this conviction and what sustains it? There will be more said about this later on. Meanwhile I shall say only that the power and the possibility of absolving sin cannot be defended with the same arguments by which they can be disputed. It would not have been difficult to convince Bonaventura himself of this, using Matthew 9:5—7, and similar passages from the other synoptic Gospels. When Jesus understood the thoughts of the scribes who upbraided him among themselves for saying to a sick man: your sins will be forgiven; he did not start to dispute with them and defend himself with the same methods by which they had attacked him, but chose an entirely different way: he healed the sick man with his words. "For whether is easier, to say Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy), Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. And he arose, and departed to his house." The power to take away sin from man, to destroy sin, lies not in him who looks to reason and morality for help and protection, but in him by whose words a sick man regains his strength, that is, in him for whom nothing is impossible.

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